Power of Attorney (POA)

Also known as: Healthcare POA, Healthcare Proxy, Springing POA, Special or Limited POA, Patient Advocate

Last Updated: January 2, 2022

Written by the Open Caregiving Team. Editorial review by Joyce O. Murphy RN, MSN.

What is a power of attorney?

A power of attorney (POA) is a legal document issued to one person who may need to make financial, legal or health decisions for the issuer. An example is if you are granted POA status for your parent whose overall health or memory is declining.

Legal terms can be confusing at times. Here are the two common ones you’ll come across in relation to being a POA, and what they mean. This glossary term’s discussion uses everyday words instead of those that are legal.

  • Agent or attorney-in-fact are the terms used about the person who has the POA. Example: You are named as the agent for your loved one if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.
  • Principal is the person for whom you are named as the agent. Example: Your loved one is the principal who has asked you to make health decisions for them if they become unable to do so.

How does power of attorney work?

The person named to be another’s POA (agent) can only do what the POA document allows. It is vital that trust exists between the agent and principal. This is because the agent often needs to make decisions about their loved one’s life, finances, and property.

What can a person do with power of attorney?

  • A person who is named as POA can do whatever is described in the document.
  • This responsibility goes into effect when that POA’s owner (principal) is no longer able to fulfill certain functions, such as managing finances.

What can a person not do with power of attorney?

  • The person named as the POA agent cannot do things that are not included in the document.
  • It is vital that POA documents clearly say what the agent can and cannot do on the principal’s behalf if they become incapacitated.

Who needs a power of attorney?

There are many types of people who can benefit from having a power of attorney.

  • A person of any age with a serious disease, or one that can quickly become that way.
  • Those who are aging, or whose mental health or memory is declining.
    • These are people who may soon need help with managing their finances.
    • When a person’s health changes quickly, their families are helped by knowing what medical choices their loved one wants.
  • Someone whose work is hazardous or often puts them in harm’s way.
  • People who travel frequently, especially out of the country.
    • They may need someone to manage their finances and property while they are away.
    • Issues caused by travel delays can be readily handled by a POA.

Is a POA a type of advance directive?

Selecting a person to make decisions as a POA is part of Advance Care Planning and is a type of advance directive. This sort of planning:

  • Can be done at any age, as well as when a person is able to make their own decisions.
  • Gives the person representing you permission to pay your bills and manage your legal plans.
  • Lets caregivers know the decisions their loved one would want them to make if they are unable due to an accident or sudden illness.
    • This can relieve caregivers of doubt and worry.
  • A person can change their POA at any time, as long as they are capable of doing so.

What is a durable power of attorney?

The term ‘durable power of attorney’ is used for most POAs. The person (agent) named as the durable power of attorney is immediately able to make decisions for their loved one (principal) when they cannot.

  • Having a durable POA means that a caregiver can make decisions which helps to:
    • Reduce the chance for any disagreements or problems within the family.
    • Make it clear to others what your loved one does and does not want regarding finances, property, and living arrangements.

Differences between POA and durable POA (lasting power of attorney).

The term Power of Attorney is a general term used for the various types of POA. These differ according to when they begin, their purpose, and how long they are in place.

  • Unless you are using a springing power of attorney a POA begins as soon as your loved one signs the document, although some states require it to be witnessed and/or notarized for it to be official.
  • A POA may need to be renewed every so often. This is decided by state rules about POA documents.
  • A standard POA does not remain in effect when the person (principal) to whom it belongs becomes incapacitated.

The Durable POA ensures that what your loved one wants continues if they are unable to make decisions due to injury, illness, or mental health issues.

  • It goes into effect when your loved one signs it and stays effective as they become unable to manage their finances or make other decisions.
  • There are different types of durable POAs, including:
    • General POA: The person selected for this role is given broad control and is able to make financial, health and legal decisions on their loved one’s behalf.
    • Special POA: The person selected for this role is given very specific control over certain areas

What are the different types of power of attorney?

What is a healthcare power of attorney (healthcare proxy)?

  • Some states allow people to name a POA for health decisions as part of advance directives. This is typically called a healthcare or medical POA. Although in some states the role may be referred to as a patient advocate, or healthcare surrogate or proxy.
    • This is a legal document. It is used when you are unable to make your own decisions.
    • It can include what a person wants if:
      • They need medical care.
      • They are dying and what they want for that stage of life.
      • They have wishes for their remains and a service or life celebration.
  • A POA for health decisions makes it clear to healthcare providers what their loved one does and doesn’t want for care.
  • State guidelines vary about Healthcare Power of Attorney requirements. You can review this form on the American Bar Association website which can be used in all but a handful of states.
  • The person that is named as the healthcare POA should:
    • Be someone that the principal trusts to follow their wishes, including those having to do with end-of-life decisions.
    • Not be their doctor or another healthcare provider.
  • If you become a healthcare proxy, review The Conversation Project’s Guide to Being a Health Care Proxy.

What is a springing power of attorney?

  • Just as it sounds, this type of POA springs into action when needed.
  • This is based on signs that someone is unable to make decisions.
  • A physician will need to determine that they are not competent for making their own decisions.

What is a special or limited power of attorney?

  • This type of POA limits the agent to be able to do specific tasks.
    • For example, they may be able to access bank accounts but not investments or a real estate deed.
  • It’s best to have a lawyer help with this as it can be a complicated process.

What is an immediate power of attorney?

  • This takes effect as soon as it is signed.
  • It needs to follow state guidelines about duration and who else may need to sign it or have a copy.

How do you get power of attorney?

Do you need a lawyer to get POA?

  • You can prepare a POA without a lawyer if doing so is allowed in your state. Make sure to fully understand the implications of assigning a POA before signing the document.
  • It is a good idea to go to a lawyer for a POA if:
    • It’s terms and responsibilities are complicated.
    • There is likely to be disagreement about what you’ve decided among family members.

How can you encourage your parents to create a power of attorney?

  • Let your parents know how a POA helps with:
    • Making sure that their bills and finances are safe and carefully managed.
    • Knowing what they do and don’t want regarding medical and health choices.
    • Letting family members know what they want if they become seriously ill and/or are expected to die soon.
  • Anyone can get a POA because of injury or illness. If you get one for yourself you can describe your experience to your parents.

Who can override a power of attorney?

A person can revoke the POA they drew up at any time if they are mentally competent. This is done in writing and should be notarized.

The revocation document is then delivered to the agent, the person who was originally selected as the POA. It should also be filed anyplace where the original POA was filed, such as with the county records office.

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